When her nausea kicked up for the umpteenth time that day, Kari Worthington left the bride's room, crossed the hall, and slipped into the bathroom. Locking the door behind her, she leaned against it for a moment to keep from throwing up. Then she stumbled across the room, kicked the train of her dress out of the way, hiked up her skirt, and sat down on the toilet lid. She buried her head in her hands as best she could with her veil in the way, wishing her stomach would quit churning and that horrible, breathless, gaspy feeling would go away.
A strand of bright auburn hair escaped the monstrous pile on her head and curled down her cheek. She tried to stuff it back, but it was hopeless. It had taken the stylist more than an hour that morning to gather her hair and incarcerate it at the crown of her head, and the woman had frowned the whole time. That was nothing new. Kari had spent her whole life with everybody around her trying to stuff parts of her back into place--both parts that showed and parts that didn't.
She tried to tell herself it was just nerves, that every bride felt like this on her wedding day because marriage was such a big step. But was that really true? Did every bride really need a barf bag only half an hour before marrying the man of her dreams?
No. Assuming her groom really was the man of her dreams.
She thought about Greg. Handsome, intelligent, serious Greg, who had dropped by her office a year ago and asked her out. It wasn't the first time a man at work had done that, but as time went on, they tended to lose interest in spite of her family connections. Something about her unusual outlook on life tended to make them slowly drift away, and pretty soon she'd be out there on that limb by herself all over again.
As it turned out, though, Greg endured her off-beat personality like a real trooper. But sometimes she thought he seemed too accommodating, as if she were an apple cart he didn't want to upset. After all, there were big advantages to being married to the boss's daughter. Kinda made a guy fire-proof. Not that Greg would ever get fired. He was a younger version of her father, right down to his designer suits and his iPhone tapping and his power lunches. Anytime she was around him, she felt as if she should be standing up straight even when she was lying flat on her back.
And speaking of lying flat on her back...
Sex with Greg had always been okay. Just...okay. Not that she'd ever had sex that was better than okay to compare it to, but she knew it had to be out there somewhere. Why else were all those odes and sonnets and love poems of yesteryear written, not to mention about a million love songs since the beginning of time? People were out there living and loving with all their hearts, and sometimes Kari lay awake at night, fervently wishing she was one of them.
She and Greg had dated for a year. Then came the ring. Then their engagement party. The minister who performed their premarital counseling pronounced them a match made in heaven. But Kari remembered thinking that the priest’s blessing had less to do with her compatibility with Greg and more to do with the fact that her father was extraordinarily wealthy and believed wholeheartedly in tithing.
Through it all, Kari had just let herself get swept along. There had always been a dress to try on, a caterer to consult, the wedding planner from hell to endure. One week passed, and then the next. Then came the Big Day, and what was she doing? Sitting on a toilet lid in her wedding dress feeling as if she was going to throw up. For all that Greg was nice and accommodating and unerringly patient, she saw the looks her father exchanged with him sometimes. I know she's a handful, her father's eyes would say, and Greg's would say, Don't worry, sir. I can handle her. You can count on me.
She heard a knock at the door. "Miss Worthington!"
Oh, God. Not Hilda. She couldn't take one more moment of Hilda Baxter. Stuart Worthington had spared no expense for his only child's wedding, including hiring the wedding planner to the rich and famous. Today she looked like a gigantic prune in her multilayered indigo dress, her face all puckered with irritation, and if she didn't leave Kari alone, she was going to wrap her hands around the woman's neck and squeeze until her eyes bugged out.
"Time's running short!" Hilda shouted through the door, sounding more like a prison guard than a wedding planner. "You need to be walking down the aisle in exactly twenty three minutes!"
Kari closed her eyes. Twenty three minutes. In only twenty three minutes she would be a married woman. Twenty three minutes...twenty three minutes...twenty three minutes...
The words reverberated inside her head so maddeningly that she put her fingertips to her temples and rubbed hard, trying to drive them away. She'd just about succeeded when a new mantra took over.
Twenty two minutes...twenty two minutes...twenty two minutes...
Kari jerked her head up, trying to shake that thought away. She had to do this. It wasn't just Greg and her father and Hilda and all those guests. It was Jill, too, who was waiting in the bride's room to join her on that trek up the aisle. Jill had been her best friend since they'd roomed together at Rice University, and now Jill was the only one Kari wanted standing next to her when she got married.
Kari imagined the look of disbelief that would spring to Jill's face if she told her she was having second thoughts. After all, Jill thought Greg was the catch of the century. But that was mostly because she had a thing for the GQ type. She didn't really know Greg.
Most of the time, Kari felt as if she didn't, either.
Her second thoughts were nothing new. She'd been having them for some time now. She'd just thought that the happy, gushy bride thing would take over the closer the wedding got and she'd realize how silly she was being.
Now all she could think of was escaping.
She froze. Leave her own wedding? Could she do that?
She took a deep, shaky breath, trying to settle her nerves, but her stomach still felt as if it was tumbling around in a clothes dryer. She grabbed her tote bag she'd brought to the bathroom with her, fished out her car keys, and stared at them.
There it was. Her ticket out of there.
She dropped the keys to her lap. Good heavens--what was she thinking? She couldn't just get into her car and drive away. What kind of a crazy person did something like that?
She put the keys back into her tote bag and rose from the toilet lid. Looking in the mirror, she straightened her veil as best she could, then opened the bathroom door. The door to the bride's room was dead ahead. If she was going to marry Greg, it was now or never. And never wasn't an option.
But all at once Kari imagined what it would be like when she went back inside. Jill would fluff the train of her dress, telling her one more time how lucky she was. Hilda would clap her hands and herd her toward the altar, where Greg would be waiting, eager for the last block of his perfectly structured life to fall into place. For one of the few times in his life, her father would be smiling, the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders as he married off his kooky daughter to a younger, more resilient version of himself. In exactly twenty-one minutes she would become--
No, no, no! I can't do this!
The words rang so loudly inside Kari's head that for a moment she wondered if she'd screamed them out loud. Suddenly her feet felt fused to the floor, as if her dainty wedding slippers were stuck inside concrete blocks. Then, out of the corner of her eye, half a dozen steps down the hall, she saw a sign that made her breath stick in her throat.
She stared at it, mesmerized by the glowing red neon. Suddenly she had the most irrational feeling that the only place where there was oxygen to breath was outside this church, and if she didn't leave right now, she'd fall over, turn purple, and die on the spot.
Maybe never was an option after all.
Without another thought, Kari pulled her keys out of her tote bag and hurried down the hall. She hit the bar on the security door and swept it open, running into the secluded side parking lot of the church. She clicked the remote to unlock the driver's door of her Lexus, suddenly met with the challenge of the century: cramming her dress along with herself behind the wheel. Fortunately, a whole lot of motivation kicked in, and in a matter of seconds, she was stuffed in, strapped in, and ready to go.
With a shaky hand, she stabbed at the ignition with the key. She managed to insert it on her third try, feeling like a lifer going over the fence at Huntsville. She paused for a moment and glanced back, sure she would see people pouring out of the church to try to stop her, but no. They were all still inside, blissfully ignorant of the fact that everything was in place for the wedding of the year, except maybe a bride.
But in the end, would anybody be all that surprised? For once in Kari's life, her history of rash, impulsive behavior was going to pay off. That's Kari, they'd all say. Running away from her own wedding. Could we really expect anything else?
Kari knew that a more confident woman would be able to look her fiancé dead in the eye and tell him she didn't want to marry him. But she knew if she did, Greg would try to talk her out of it. Then her father would get into the mix. Then Jill would tell her again what a catch Greg was and beg her to reconsider. Then Hilda would freak out and start throwing commands around like a third world dictator, and all hell would break loose. If Kari actually had a backbone, she could have endured all that, but right now it felt like wet spaghetti. In no time, they'd be shoving her up the aisle and she'd be saying those vows and before she knew it, she'd be a miserable married woman for the rest of her life.
She took a deep, shaky breath. This was it. Her moment of truth. She could stay and continue living as she always had, with other people pushing her around, or she could take charge of her own life.
It was time to take charge.
She started the car and drove out of the parking lot to a side street behind the church, pretty sure nobody had seen her. Once on the main road, though, she realized she had no clue which direction to go. North to Dallas? Or west to Austin?
Austin. It was a weird city. Oddball people lived there. Since she'd always been one of those herself, she'd blend in better. And it was closer. She could drive there, get a room at a nice hotel like the Driskill or the InterContinental, order something large and chocolate from room service, and then sit back and figure out what to do next.
Then all at once she thought about Boo, her precious little terrier Jill was taking care of while she was on her honeymoon. Right now Kari had no plan. How long would she have to stay gone until the heat was off?
He'll be okay. Jill will take care of him. Just go!
But as Kari pulled up to the next stoplight, guilt crept in. No matter how wrong this marriage would be, she couldn't leave without saying something to somebody. She decided to text Greg, knowing he'd have his iPhone with him even as he was ready to walk up the aisle. On vibrate, of course, but with him nonetheless, because that was the kind of guy he was. And that--that right there--was part of the problem. Her ring tone was a frog croaking, which made her smile every time she heard it. How was she supposed to marry a man whose ring tone sounded like--of all things--a telephone ringing?
I'm so sorry, she punched in. I can't marry you. It's not you, it's me. I'm just...sorry. I'll be in touch later.
Then guilt raised its ugly head again. Greg didn't deserve this. He didn't deserve being left at the altar in front of three hundred people.
Then she thought about those looks between him and her father, the ones that said she wasn't going to be so much Greg's wife as she was a rock around his neck he was willing to endure. In a few decades, when Stuart Worthington died and went to that big board room in the sky, it would all be worth it to Greg. And it would be worth it to her father, too, to spend eternity knowing his flighty, flaky daughter was well in hand.
I didn't pick him, Dad. You did.
And something about that made her guilt melt away.
Kari stared at the text message, trying to think of something else to say, but there really wasn't anything, so she hit "send."
Then the light turned green, and she hit the gas.
* * *
As Marc Cordero went down the elevator of San Jacinto Hall to get Angela's last box from the car, he wondered where along the way he'd lost his mind. He should have insisted she go to a smaller school. Or maybe to junior college for a year or two. Hell, he should have locked her in her bedroom and thrown away the key so he'd never have to deal with any of this.
The University of Texas had sounded so safe and civilized when the college counselor at her high school had talked about it, and when he and Angela visited the campus, it had seemed relatively tame. Of course, that had been during the summer session, when only a fraction of the place was occupied.
Neither of those things had prepared Marc for the chaos of move-in day.
The madness had actually begun an hour ago, twenty miles outside Austin. Marc had followed Angela's car with his truck, which he was using to help haul all her belongings to campus. They'd crept along the highway for what seemed like forever. Marc had sworn there had to be a five car pileup ahead, but it turned out that it was just a traffic jam caused by students heading to UT.
The moment the campus came into view, Marc got a sick, sinking sensation in his stomach. Lack of control always did that to him. Dropping his daughter off at this place was making him feel more out of control than he had for the past eighteen years, and that was saying a lot. Angela, on the other hand, got out of her car, took one look at the campus, and her face lit up exactly the way it had when she was six years old and saw the Magic Kingdom for the first time.
Six years old. Magic Kingdom. Where the hell had the time gone?
Marc grabbed the last box from his truck and headed back into the building, sidestepping one person after another, feeling as if he was navigating a sidewalk in Shanghai. A few minutes later, he got off the elevator and headed down the hall to the twelve-by-sixteen space Angela was sharing with a girl from Lubbock who'd also taken potluck on a roommate. They seemed to get along well already, which he guessed was a good thing, except the girl had a tattoo of some Chinese symbol on her upper arm, a ring through her nose, and frizzy hair dyed death-black.
Angela lifted her arms to put a framed photo onto the top shelf of her bookcase, hiking up her shirt. It was one of those midriff things she wore with jeans slung a few inches below her belly button, which was pierced with a silver ring. God in heaven--why had he given in on that?
Because she'd begged for weeks, driving him crazy until he'd finally told her she could pierce anything she could cover up later for a job interview. Then he'd read something in one of her magazines about labia piercing, and that was when he'd known for a fact that this parenthood thing had gotten totally out of control and he didn't stand a chance any more.
"Where do you want this?" Marc asked.
“On the dresser,” Angela said.
He set the box down and turned back, brushing his hands together, but before he could ask Angela if she needed any help unpacking or maybe hanging some stuff on the walls, she said, "I'll walk you back downstairs."
Marc wasn't ready for this. He was even more not ready than he imagined he'd be. "Uh...okay." He turned to Angela's roommate. "It was nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too, Mr. Cordero," the girl said with a smile, but her eyes said, Now go away.
Marc and Angela walked back to the elevator lobby. The elevator doors opened, and three boys got off. As they passed by, one of them eyed Angela with too much interest, a hulking jock type who looked as if he was itching for another notch on his bedpost.
“What are you looking at?” Marc growled.
The kid stopped. Swallowed hard. “Uh...nothing, sir.”
“That’s right. You’re looking at nothing. And nothing is over there. My daughter is over here, and she's not nothing. So if you’re looking at nothing, you’re not looking at her. Are we clear on that?”
The kid’s eyes went big as searchlights. “Yes, sir.”
“Now, beat it,” Marc snapped.
As the kid hurried off with his buddies, Angela spun on Marc, looking horrified. “Dad! Why did you do that?”
“Nothing’s changed just because you’re here and I’m in Rainbow Valley,” he said, striding onto the elevator. “No dumb jock just looking to get laid is going to mess with you.”
“So what are you going to do?” Angela said, following him onto the elevator. “Drive an hour so you can kick his ass?”
“Don’t think I won’t.”
She stabbed the down button on the elevator panel. “I can’t believe you don’t trust me.”
“I trust you. It’s guys like him I don’t trust.”
“Could you embarrass me any more, Dad?” she said, throwing her arms into the air. “Huh? Is it even possible?”
Didn’t she get it by now? He just wanted her to be safe. That was all. But in this place...good God. He saw danger around every corner. Why didn’t she?
Right about then, their tiny little town seemed like a 1950s sitcom set in comparison. Everybody knew everybody else in Rainbow Valley, so kids knew if they got out of line, word would eventually get back to somebody who would shove them back in. Marc had always been able to intimidate Angela’s boyfriends with a frown, a gruff voice, and a few subtle words of warning. In fact, there had been times when he swore he was smiling but Angela told him he still looked pissed, which meant he scared her boyfriends to death. That was fine with him if it meant they kept their distance. But what was he supposed to do now? Could he make sure they didn’t mess with his daughter when he was an hour away in Rainbow Valley?
The problem was that he knew what teenage boys were like because he'd been one. Things could happen you never expected and certainly weren't ready to deal with. It was funny how after all these years he could barely remember what Nicole looked like, only that he'd been crazy in love with her and teenage sex had seemed like a wondrous gift from God.
Then came Angela.
A month later, Nicole was gone. Couldn't handle being a mother. As if Marc had been any more prepared to be a father.
In the years that followed, he'd felt as if he didn't have a clue what he was doing. Angela's childhood seemed like nothing but a blur in his mind right now. Then came the God awful early teenage years, with hormones running rampant and all that shouting and door slamming, making him feel as if he was doing everything wrong and she'd be rolling her eyes at him for the rest of their lives.
But the older she got, the more things leveled out, until it looked as if the sleepless nights and the constant worry and the occasional heartache were giving way to the kind of warm, comfortable relationship he'd always wanted them to have. And as he looked at his daughter now, skimpy shirt and all, he thought maybe he'd done a pretty damned good job of raising her.
"You're right," Marc said as the elevator doors opened on the first floor. "I shouldn't have embarrassed you. You're not a kid anymore. I know you can take care of yourself."
Those words came harder to him that anything else, because he wasn't sure he believed them. He knew he'd better believe them, though, if he expected to get any sleep for the next four years.
Angela gave him a little shrug. "It's okay. That guy looked like a jerk, anyway."
That was Angela. So forgiving. Sometimes a little too forgiving. He wanted to shout at her: If you meet a guy who behaves badly, don’t you dare excuse it! But if she hadn't learned that lesson already, was repeating it now going to make any difference?
As they walked to his truck, Marc dreaded every step he took more than the one before it. He clicked open his door with the remote, then turned back to Angela.
"Do you want me to stay for a while? Maybe take you and your new roommate to get a bite to eat?”
Angela looked back over her shoulder. "Uh..."
Marc held up his hand. "Never mind. You already have plans."
"It's just that Kim and I thought we'd walk around campus and check things out a little. Just to see what's going on. You know."
“I don't like missing harvest this year,” Angela said.
“You hate harvest.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said with a little shrug, folding her arms and staring down at her blue-frosted toenails. “But it’s all hands on deck, you know?”
Marc felt a stab of remembrance. That was what he’d told her from the time she was old enough to snip grapes off of vines. At this vineyard, everybody pulls his weight. And that goes double if your name is Cordero.
“Uncle Daniel is coming back,” Marc said. “We’ll get it done.”
She nodded, then smiled briefly. “Do you remember the time when I was six and I ate a fifty four Tempranillo grapes?”
That felt like a hundred years ago. Had it really been only twelve? “I was thrilled you could count that high.”
“Purple puke isn’t pretty, is it?”
“Not in the least.”
“Why didn’t you stop me?”
“Because experience is the best teacher.”
Angela looked over her shoulder at the sea of students, then back at Marc. “Then maybe I’d better go experience some stuff, huh?”
This is it. It's time for you to go, old man. So go.
"Call me if you need anything," he told Angela.
"Or even if you don't."
She nodded. For a few seconds, neither one of them spoke. Then Angela's face crumpled. She took a step forward and wound her arms around his neck in a desperate hug. Suddenly she was six years old again, with her little hands holding on tightly because of a bad dream or a scraped knee, or sometimes just because he'd been twice as important to her because he was Dad and Mom all rolled into one. As he held her tightly, she whispered, "I love you, Dad," into his ear, and he whispered that he loved her, too.
Finally she pulled away, sniffing a little. He opened the door to his truck and got inside. She took a few steps back from the curb and wiped tears from her eyes. As Marc started the car, he was pretty sure he was going to cry, too, and he hadn’t done that since he was seven years old.
No. Get yourself together. This is a good thing. For the first time in eighteen years, your life is your own.
He put the car in gear. Angela waved goodbye, and he waved back. As he drove away, he glanced in his rear view mirror to see her turn around and walk away from him and into her new life.
It was time for him to do the same.
By the time he was heading back toward Rainbow Valley, he was ticking off all the reasons why this new chapter in his life was going to be a good thing. But before he could change his life completely, he had to get through harvest. Daniel would be there in a few weeks. That had been their agreement. As soon as Angela was in college, Daniel would come back to Cordero Vineyards to assume responsibility for the family business for the next three years, carrying on the tradition Marc had guarded all this time.
Once his brother took over, Marc intended to hop on his motorcycle and hit the open road. Where he'd go, he didn't know. That was the most amazing feeling of all. He didn't know. To have the next three years of his life ahead of him virtually unscripted was something he couldn't have imagined when he'd changed his first diaper eighteen years ago. And once he was motoring down the open road and happened to meet a woman who was out for a good time, he was going for it. The only women he intended to have anything to do with were ones who wanted what he wanted—great sex with no strings attached. He couldn’t even imagine what that was going to be like, but he sure as hell intended to find out.
To kick things off, at eight o'clock tonight he intended to jump headfirst into the life of bachelorhood that becoming a father at seventeen had never allowed him to live. He was going to sit in his brand new La-Z-Boy recliner in front of the sixty-inch LED TV he'd bought last weekend and watch a preseason football game. But first he was going to stop at the Pic 'N Go and buy as much junk food as he could get his hands on, crap he rarely kept in the house because parents who put sugar and trans fats in front of their kids these days were evidently going to hell. But if he chose to get a little diabetes and heart disease himself, that was his business.
It wasn't as if he hadn’t watched a ball game in the past eighteen years, but tonight was different. He didn’t have to worry that Angela was out with friends and she hadn’t come home yet, or that he’d turn around to see an army of teenagers traipsing through his house, or that he needed to put a decent dinner on the table for his kid so the food police didn’t come after him. Tonight it was just him alone in the house with no responsibility for anyone but himself, with nothing to do except cheer on the Cowboys and clog his arteries. And he was going to make the most of it.
Then he thought about Angela and felt a flicker of worry, along with an empty spot inside him that came from missing her already. He thought about calling her, then thought again. You taught her right. Now let her live her own life, and you live yours.
He checked his watch. It was still a few hours until kickoff. He looked at the horizon, where dark clouds churned against an iron gray sky. Even though a heavy rainstorm was predicted, he'd be home before it hit. In his recliner. In front of his television. Living it up. He felt a moment of worry about the grapes, then brushed it off. They were weeks away from harvest, with plenty of time for them to recover from a heavy rainstorm before they brought them in. Rain or no rain, nothing was going to screw up his good mood tonight.
He was only thirty six years old. He'd paid his dues. Now it was his turn. As of tonight, he was starting a whole new life.
* * *
Three hours later, Kari drove along a dark, deserted country road somewhere in the Texas Hill Country, gripping the steering wheel so tightly her fingers ached. Rain fell in such a deluge against her windshield that her wipers could barely sweep it away. The road beneath her tires was growing slicker by the minute. Worst of all, her gas gauge was in the red, which meant if she didn't find a station soon, she'd be stuck by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.
She'd intended to get hotel room in Austin. What she hadn't counted on was a gazillion people swarming the city for move-in day at the University of Texas. They'd sucked up every decent hotel room for miles around, so she decided to head for San Antonio.
Then came the rain.
Pretty soon the bad weather led to an accident on the freeway, and she'd gotten stuck in the snarl of traffic. Her engine had idled for over an hour until she had less than a fourth of a tank of gas left. She finally got the chance to exit the freeway to search for a gas station, only to end up on a road completely devoid of everything. No cars, no people, no buildings, no nothing. It was as if she was driving through a black hole, except there was rain and thunder and lightning. The longer she drove, the more the road wound around until she had no clue which direction she was going.
She'd yanked off her veil and tossed it into the backseat about a hundred miles ago, but she was still stuck in her wedding dress. It was compressing her ribs so much that she couldn't breathe, and if she didn't get out of it soon, she was going to keel over and die. Why hadn't she stopped at a McDonald's? She could have changed clothes, grabbed a Big Mac, and been back on the road in ten minutes, which meant that right now she'd be comfortable and full. Instead she was incarcerated inside a wedding dress, starving, with no clue where on earth she was. She'd just been so hell-bent on getting to Austin that she hadn't wanted to stop.
Then she saw it. Up ahead. Or were her eyes playing tricks on her?
No. It was real. Light glimmered faintly though the falling rain.
Maybe it was a service station. Maybe one of those deluxe service stations where she could get a cup of coffee and a sub sandwich and a brownie for dessert and wait out the worst of the storm. Then she could ask directions, gas up, and eventually she'd get back to the freeway, then to whatever luxury hotel she could find. She would hand her keys to the valet, get a room, ditch this dress, soak in the Jacuzzi tub for about an hour, and then--
All at once, something darted in front of her. Her mind barely registered "deer" before she wheeled the car hard to the right to miss it. As the startled animal scrambled away, Kari felt the bump and grind of the gravelly shoulder of the road beneath her tires. She tried to turn back, but her car slid sideways down a shallow embankment and smacked into a tree. The force of the impact slung her sideways, whipping her neck hard to one side and banging her head. The windshield shattered, and pellets of safety glass rained into the car like a shower of diamonds.
And then everything went still.
Strangely, the car was still running, but when she turned to see the tree trunk embedded into the passenger door, she realized she wasn't going anywhere. She turned off the ignition, her hand shaking so hard she could barely hold onto the key. The car engine died, leaving only the sound of the rain pounding against the car and her pulse throbbing inside her skull. With the windshield gone, rain hit the dashboard, bounced off, and splatted against her face.
In a surge of frustration, she pounded the steering wheel and shouted a few curse words at the top of her lungs. When that didn't unsmash her car and put it back up on the road, she clutched the steering wheel and dragged in a deep, ragged breath.
Get a grip. Where's your phone?
She felt around on the dripping-wet seat, then on the floorboard beneath her feet, before she finally found it. She'd turned it off earlier to avoid the deluge of phone calls and texts she knew she'd get. When she turned it on now, she felt marginally better when it lit up and the car wasn't completely dark.
And she couldn't get a signal.
She tossed it to the seat beside her, wondering what in the world she was supposed to do now. She had yet to see anybody else on this godforsaken road. It was dark and cold and wet and her head hurt, and she was starting to get just a tiny bit scared. If she’d only stayed in Houston, she’d be at her reception right now. Clean and dry and eating and drinking and dancing and…
Then she saw it again in the distance. The light she'd seen right before going off the road. Where there was light, there was help, right? Unfortunately, it wasn't coming to her. She had to go to it. But walk in this horrible storm?
Then again, what was her alternative? She had no windshield, so she was already drenched, anyway. She might as well try to find help. And if she didn't get out of this dress soon, it was going to squash the last breath right out of her.
She grabbed her tote bag and stuffed her cell phone inside it. With a deep breath, she shoved as much dress as she could out of the way, then followed it out of the car, wincing at the pain in her wrenched neck and across her shoulder where the seatbelt had dug in. As she climbed the incline to the road, rain hammered her mercilessly, her dress dragging through the mud behind her.
When she reached the road, she felt a little woozy. Maybe she should have eaten something today besides half of the granola bar Jill had shoved at her, but she’d been so sick at the thought of becoming a married woman that she hadn’t been able to eat anything else. And dragging layer after layer of mud caked Duchess satin and Chantilly lace behind her was just about to wear her out.
And the rain still came down.
It's not a disaster, it's an adventure…
She kept saying that to herself, over and over, because they said repetition was the key to making yourself believe something. She liked adventures. She lived her life looking for them. But she generally preferred being dry and alive to enjoy them.
As she drew closer to the light, a jagged bolt of lightning sizzled to earth, exploding in a loud burst of electricity and momentarily illuminating a sign just up the highway. She slogged through the mud for another few minutes until she reached it. It was a painted wooden sign with grapes and wine bottles and the words "Cordero Vineyards" in white cursive letters shadowed in bright crimson. Now she realized the light she'd seen was coming from a structure on that property. Closer now, it looked like a farmhouse. Unfortunately, it was at the end of a very long driveway, and she was about to faint from exhaustion.
Kari imagined the person she hoped would answer the door—a grandmotherly woman who would invite her in, fix her a cup of tea, then cluck sweetly over her until the storm let up and she could figure out what to do next.
Then another bolt of lightning exploded, so close it made even Kari’s wet arm hairs stand on end. Get out of this rain, or you’re going to be a barbecued bride.
With a deep breath, she turned onto the property, focused on the light, and kept on walking.
* * *
Marc checked his watch. It was almost eight. He poured the jar of gooey fake cheese crap he’d microwaved over the tortilla chips, then threw a handful of jalapeño slices on top. Ah. Food of the gods. For tonight and hereafter, to hell with healthy. His new motto: Live fast, die young. He liked the way that sounded, smooth and careless, throwing caution to the wind. Then his brain veered off on a Dad tangent: Yes. That's an excellent plan. Just make sure your life insurance is paid up first.
Crap. Responsibility was going to be a hard habit to kick. He needed to think bachelor thoughts.
He stuck a package of Double Stuf Oreos under one arm, then picked up the nachos and a beer and headed to his living room. He put the food on the end table and collapsed in his recliner, tipping it back to maximum comfort level with his feet up and his head on the pillowy back rest. Then he reached for the remote and turned on the game.
Outside the rain came down in buckets. Thunder boomed. Lightning crashed. And Marc couldn’t have cared less, because he was inside this house where it was warm and dry, and tonight, right there in his living room, the Cowboys were going to beat the daylights out of the Steelers.
To complete the picture of total decadence, Brandy lay on the rug at his feet. He'd felt generous tonight and had given her way too many of her favorite dog treats. Now she was lying upside down, asleep and snoring, her bushy golden retriever tail flicking back and forth as she dreamed of chasing rabbits through the vineyard. Marc took a long drink of beer and let out a satisfied sigh. Life didn't get any better than this.
The Cowboys won the toss and lined up to receive the kickoff. The Steelers kicker took off toward the ball.
And there was a knock at his door.
Marc whipped around. Somebody at his door? In this storm?
Brandy leaped up and started barking. Marc grabbed the remote, hit the pause button, and went to the entry hall. He opened the door. He blinked. Blinked again. And he still couldn’t believe what he saw.
A woman stood on his porch. Her hair was hanging in a dripping wad on one side of her head, and rain trickled off her nose. Raindrops clung to her eyelashes, shimmering in the dim porch light. Considering the storm, all that made sense. But what was that monstrosity she was wearing? She looked like Glinda the Good Witch after a bout of mud wrestling.
But as he looked her up and down, light slowly dawned, and he had the feeling the first day of his new life had just gone straight to hell. She was dripping wet. She was dirty from head to toe. She looked lost and lonely and helpless.
And she was wearing a wedding dress.